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Livebait review

Jonathan Schofield compares oysters to sex or scoring a goal

Written by . Published on May 9th 2011.


Livebait review

When I see oysters on a menu my heart lifts, and my bank balance weeps. I have to have them.

If only the chefs, the whole management machine, even the vast faceless conglomerate behind could just shake themselves and say, “Sod this, we want to loosen up. Let the chefs fly.”

As Fernando Armesto pointed out in his fine book ‘Food: a History’ from 2001, oysters for us Westerners are a rare thing.

He reckoned that chewing on a bivalve is as close as we get to eating as our humanoid ancestors would have understood. We eat oysters alive and we eat the whole animal.

Armesto wrote, ‘If you don’t raise the half-shell to your mouth, throw back your head, scrape the creature from its lair with your teeth, taste its briny juice and squelch it slightly against the palate before swallowing it alive, then you deprive yourself of a historic experience.’

That’s the pleasure: that visceral, uncivilised, unprocessed noshing on untouched nature. It’s a gloriously unmediated joy, like sex, or scoring a cracking goal in a match that matters. The death of Reason with a capital R, just you and the food with the etiquette and the formality removed. Slurping is allowed. That's why oysters are often claimed to be an aphrodisiac: it's back to basics.

Thus when eating oysters my conversation goes something like this: “Ugg, uggg, uggg, ugg, lovely that, ugg.” Caveman in other words. I even have visions in which I fight with a massive turtle – click here for an example of this.

Livebait does oysters. Passing last week, and yearning for oysters I scanned the menu on the door.

“Ugg,” I said pointing.

Livebait is as controversial as oysters in Manchester. It’s reputation is up and down, mostly more down than up. The complaints have always been about the food.

As a dining space it’s fine. The tile and green interior works with the handsome 1868 building it sits within. The big sash windows maximise light. The air conditioning is efficient.

Customer service can be very good too.

On our visits, one female dining companion fell in love with the waiter, a good looking, tousled haired lad, with an accent from some distant shore that only added to his allure. On a secondary, less vinous occasion, the waitress also from a distant shore, was spot on with suggestions for accompaniments.

The food remains the issue.

The oysters at £9.50 for six as a minimum order (why not sell them singly?) were mean little things. One of the oysters was so small a second opinion was needed as to whether it was actually there. The nice male waiter brought another.

Given that Livebait is owned by some vast faceless conglomerate, is this an exercise in cost-cutting, a seeking out of the runts of the rocks? These oysters scratched maybe 4/10 on the ‘Ugg’ scale.

This patchy quality of the food was the theme throughout, while the wine choice was average although a 2009 Muscadet (£21) was relished. Twice relished. 

The good.

A cod special (£16.95) disappeared very quickly. It was subsequently described by the person who ravished the creature like this: ‘If you had tasted it, you would have thought that the creamy sauce was very rich but an ideal accompaniment for the mild flavour of the fish. It was lovely, a perfect size portion for lunch and almost as tasty as the waiter. Almost.’

The bad.

The whole Devonshire crab (£13.95) was a disappointment. Served hot it was mis-timed in the kitchen, and its flesh was shrivelled and dry within its shell: a signature dish turned into an illegible scribble.

The good.

A lemon sole (£23.95) was delicious. The accompaniments, recommended by a waitress, all matched. The spinach and the mange tout was absolutely right as was the chilli, soy and lime dip, which lifted the flavour of the fish extravagantly.

But if the kitchen could do some things so well, how could they give me such rubbish oysters and such a poor crab? It’s bewildering. And infuriating.

And that’s the problem. 

Livebait feels like a compromise. There’s even a meaty chop of the day sullying its fishy exceptionalism. This is a seafood restaurant that lacks panache and verve. 

Three weeks ago I visited a glorious fish restaurant in Malaga called Refectorium. Here there was such a freedom of food expression, such casual skill you couldn’t help but grin. It all seemed so natural.

If only it were the same at Livebait. If only the chefs, the whole management machine, even the vast faceless conglomerate behind could just shake themselves and say, “Sod this, we want to loosen up. Let the chefs fly.”

I can dream.

In the UK chains seem to rule the ocean, with independents unwilling to specialise in fish and seafood. Loch Fyne, now closed in Didsbury (report later this week) was shocking.

Livebait is better, but too often feels like an investment first and a labour of love – a vocation - second.

There just aren't anywhere near enough "Ugg, ugg, ugg" moments.

Follow @JonathSchofield on Twitter.

Rating 13/20

6/10 food

4/5 service

3/5 ambience

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

Livebait

22 Lloyd Street

City

0161 834 4350

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10 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Neil AnderthalMay 9th 2011.

Nice video clip. When you eat oysters do you also have a vision of Raquel Welch in her skin bikini?

Jonathan SchofieldMay 9th 2011.

Invariably Neil.

JamesMay 9th 2011.

Livebait does have that cold hand of the upper management. But it is the only place that can be bothered supplying a seafood platter

L.O. TharioMay 9th 2011.

'It’s a gloriously unmediated joy, like sex, or scoring a cracking goal in a match that matters.' I like to eat oysters while doing the other two things at the same time.

NorthernGeezerMay 9th 2011.

Good review Jonno, and i wouldnt disagree with any of it.
This place is very hit and miss on a dish by dish basis.
Last time i was here i sent back the crab based on its size and quality, it was SHYTE with a capital SH!!!!.
However, they quickly redeemed themselves with an outstanding smoked haddock that was out of this world, and there in lies the problem eh, a pricey meal for probably one good dish.................if yer lucky.

NorthernGeezerMay 9th 2011.

THIS NEW FORMAT IS F**KIN WEIRD!!!!

Good review Jonno, and i wouldnt disagree with any of it.
This place is very hit and miss on a dish by dish basis.
Last time i was here i sent back the crab based on its size and quality, it was SHYTE with a capital SH!!!!.
However, they quickly redeemed themselves with an outstanding smoked haddock that was out of this world, and there in lies the problem eh, a pricey meal for probably one good dish.................if yer lucky

Dhruv PatelMay 10th 2011.

Agreed. I've been a few times and always willed them to cook me a good meal. Most disappointing was discovering that they use frozen chips with their fish and chips. The fish itself was wonderful, but the chips were shocking. It cant' be that hard to peel and cut a spud!

AnonymousMay 10th 2011.

what exactly do you expect from Green King?

AnonymousMay 10th 2011.

I've always found Lloyds chippy just down the road to be perfectly adequate for all of my chip shop needs, wonderful ambience in there. You should try it.

OtherneedsMay 10th 2011.

Anonymous, you have chip shop needs? Crikey

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